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The cost of misusing advanced statistics

Advanced metrics have allowed fans and media to follow the NBA closer than ever. At the same time it's opening doors for misinterpretation and misunderstandings about the game itself.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the modern era of the extinct center, stretch-4, nearly 7-foot Greek point guards and undersized shooting guards, the idea behind extrapolating a player's efficiency by way of endless metrics is tiring, becomes convoluted and often-times misses the point.

Perhaps the evolution of advanced stats and being able to track everything that happens on the hardwood is in accordance with the NBA's advancement in technology. The NBA has an aggressive media agenda that's responsible for spreading the game into the furthermost corners of the globe. However we must stop to ponder if we're telling a story about the true essence of the game. Are we depicting a dissected version of the game that's dished with so many statistical variables it's tough to derive the underlying essence.

The standard by which we judge NBA players in an attempt to seem intelligent is having a reverse affect on the average fan. There are many used for analysis (WAR, RPM, etc) however to provide a simpler (and more popular) example, most don't understand PER (player efficiency rating), the ways in which John Hollinger computes a players ranking, who Hollinger is, or why he's an authority on how to properly rank a player. However in numerous articles that discuss a player's worth on the court you're sure to find PER in there somewhere.

Hollinger's PER system is an equation based on a player's contributions from the field, three point line, free throws, rebounds, and assists as the major statistical categories. All of the aforementioned are set against a team and league average. At the tail end of the equation out comes a number which encapsulates a player, his overall team contribution and his place in the league.

It's an equation that would currently suggest Gordon Hayward's 19.7 PER is of greater importance to the Utah Jazz than Kobe Bryant is to the Lakers (19.4 PER). Although Bryant on the season has 146 more points, edges Gordon by 21 assists and has grabbed one board more than Gordon who's 12 years younger than Bryant. Making the argument that Hayward is having a better season based on these statistics is also short-sided. Once again more objectivity is needed as one can take into account the talent that surrounds Bryant versus Hayward, comparing both player's usage rate, type of shots taken and defensive pressure. Different systems, and certainly different situations.

PER measures a player's production by the minute. To further stress how unreliable PER can be... According to Dwight Powell is currently the league leader in PER (33). How can that be? Powell has appeared in only four contests with the Boston Celtics. According to Hollinger's PER reference guide that's good enough to be considered as a "Hands-down MVP", just one level and a few points short of reaching the pinnacle of the ladder, which is "all-time great season" status even though Powell has only logged seven minutes on the season.

Brandan Wright has logged 467 minutes for the Dallas Mavericks however, his current PER is 26.6. Currently better than LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul and many others. Using the PER reference guide again, Wright's stats make him a "long-shot MVP candidate."

As the season moves further along, certainly the aforementioned examples will serve as simple stat abnormalities. However for hardcore fans of Powell and Wright (if there are any out there), you might hear the argument of "At one point Wright's PER was better than LeBron's". Hopefully that conversation isn't taking place anywhere on the planet.

Still judging players by advanced stats (like PER) leaves no room for objectivity. A few of the variables that Hollinger's system do not take into account are the value of a versatile sixth man who can help a team adjust to matchups, give a spark of energy or provide a change of pace, or player's who free up some of the league's greatest superstars with physical screens and play that are usually left out of the stat column. Player's who make the extra pass to a teammate, those that sacrifice their body by diving on a loose ball, etc. Simply put, there's a variety of contributions players make that can't be measured.

Ironically, advanced stats are the modern Basketball for Dummies — a shorthand for evaluating player performance. The idea of reducing a player's contributions on the court into one constant numeric is fallible itself. There's another level of advanced stats the average fan (and journalist) doesn't have the ability to comprehend. Stats that are of greater value to NBA teams themselves, and fluctuate as a roster's and personnel continuously change.

We're living in a Sportscenter top 10 era, where attention is paid to the stats and performances that produce the most eye-candy, while leaving behind the smaller and less attractive elements of the game. It's nearly impossible to weigh a player's entire contribution, truth is players fail and flourish in different scenarios. One squad's dud can easily be another team's stud.

For example, as the Warriors are currently playing at the second best pace in the league scoring 98 points every 100 possessions, it's unlikely they'd replace Harrison Barnes with veteran Paul Pierce although Pierce has greater notoriety and is a future Hall of Fame player.

Pierce is currently utilizing 21 percent of the Washington Wizards possessions and responsible for 23.5 percent of their points while he's on the floor. At first glance it would seem Pierce is a major contributor for the Wizards, however he's only putting up 13.2 points on the season. On the other hand Barnes only averages two points less while sporting a usage ratio of 14.2 percent. His slightly lower 11.6 points per game comes with being responsible for only 16.4 percent of the Warriors point production while he's on the floor. Last, according to Pierce's PER on the season is 16.9, while Barnes' stands at 14.6. But the issue here is that Barnes' style of play and low usage is arguably a better fit for this particular Warriors group.

Not to pick on Hollinger's system that has become another standard in how players are discussed and (unfortunately) evaluated, but it's simply another example of an unreliable resource capable of producing an underdeveloped argument. Tracking players by advanced metrics is acceptable. Using these stats to determine their worth is irresponsible and contributes to a misunderstanding of basketball.

No disrespect to those who love to number crunch. However, as we must with everything in life, single metric player evaluations should be taken with a grain of salt. It's highly unlikely Joe Lacob and Bob Myers spend their summers cherry picking from a PER stat sheet listing available free agents from top to bottom. Perhaps we should resist the temptation, and exercise the same judgement.

It's time to start giving single metrics the attention they deserve — minimal. They're a fun tool that allow players to be studied under a microscope. However they should never be the standard by which a player is judged. It's not a call to be ignorant or traditionalists. It's a plea to be more sophisticated about what we discuss, and the reasons that surround the resources we use.

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